Sunday, 22 June 2008


“Who sees the human face correctly: the photographer, the mirror, or the painter?” – Pablo Picasso

The ancient Greeks were quite proficient in the art of painting. Not only vase and wall painting, but also in easel painting on panels of wood or marble. What we know of easel painting of the classical era we know from contemporary descriptions of the life of artists and their works. However, no ancient Greek easel painting of the classical era has survived. Many artists such as Zeuxis and Parrhasius, Timanthes, Pamphilus and Pausias, Apelles and Protogenes are described as masters of their art, and their paintings make many writers wax lyrical about them.

One set of examples of ancient Greek art on a wood panel we have, was discovered in the sacred grotto dedicated to the nymph of Pitsa near Corinth. This is one of the rare examples of "Archaic" Greek painting, and it can be dated about 540 BC. It represents a short procession of donors approaching a low, bare altar at the right. Offerings are being brought by garlanded women and youths: Wine by the imperious woman leading the group; a lamb by the boy behind her; flowering branches by the serene figures behind a pair of musicians. It is the best preserved of four tablets found in Pitsa, which constitute, together with the pinakes of Penteskouphia (now in Berlin), the most ancient documents of that painting which historians assure us was born in Corinth. Proof can be found in the analogous quality of the vase painting, in a similar employment of judicious, yet joyful, dramatic variations that do not disturb the outlines of the compositional cadences. The name of the artist was inserted in the writing at the top, but today this is unfortunately lost. All that remains is the eponym "Corinthian." which is, nevertheless, useful information. The small painted tablets called pinakes were suspended on the walls of little chapel-like structures in tombs.

The tablets are thin wooden boards or panels, covered with stucco (plaster) and painted with mineral pigments. Their bright colours are surprisingly well preserved. Only eight colours (black, white, blue, red, green, yellow, purple and brown) are used, with no shading or gradation of any sort. Probably, the black contour outlines were drawn first and then filled in with colours.

Those familiar with Christian church services might assume that Greek hymns were sung inside ‘god’s house’, i.e. his temple, perhaps before the cult image itself, which was (usually) placed seated in the cella. But Greek religion was conducted largely out of doors: Processions and sacrifice (both typically accompanied by hymn-singing) focussed on the spatial transition from town to temple and in particular on the altar erected outside the temple entrance. Aristophanes (in his plays “Clouds” and “Peace”) mentions ‘most holy processions to the gods’ (prosodoi makaron ierotatoi).

This precious painting and three more from the same location can be admired today in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens!

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